When Honor Meets Disrespect

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Cultural Mores & Travel

I gasped when I spotted a bloke on the river boat in Thailand.

His baggy sleeveless top–sometimes called a muscle shirt–revealed a black-inked Buddha covering the whole expanse of the left side of his front torso, from shoulder to his (I think) hip.

He was youngish Anglo-man–maybe late twenties or early thirties–from an indeterminate country: US? France? England? Australia? Germany?

My surprise arose because Buddhist countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma and others, consider wearing of the Buddha–on clothing or bodies–disrespectful.

Of the highest order.

Buddhist temples in Bangkok, for example, display signs that warn about body tattoos,  bare shoulders, uncovered legs, shoes, hats, and poor behavior, such as climbing on statues. 

At the most popular temples, workers will hand you a cotton robe to cover your body if your clothing is indiscreet. 

Placing your back to the Buddha–to take a selfie, for example–is discourteous, although it is usually fine to snap photos of statues if you are facing them. 

Point is, the customs surrounding the Buddhist culture aren’t secret. 

When you arrive at the Bangkok airport, billboards abound–in English–asking for courteous behavior when visiting cultural relics. 

Having a religious tattoo isn’t what is troubling: it’s not attending to cultural mores that is disturbing.

My parents insisted in the 1960s when we moved overseas that–as US citizens–we were foreigners in countries where we didn’t fully understand local traditions. 

We were soberly instructed to be aware we were visitors–guests–in someone else’s cultural home, and respect was sacred.

I can understand the umbrage of Sri Lankan officials who–nearly 3 years ago as of this writing–deported a British woman who arrived at the airport with a Buddhist tattoo on her shoulder and arm.

Covering herself would have been wise, but her tattoos were exposed.

Some of my relatives get angry, sad and frustrated when non-Indigenous folk–who may be well-meaning but ignorant–adopt Native American clothing or practices without knowledge or permission.

More than once, I hear non-Indians refer to our regalia as “costumes.”

When sports enthusiasts color their faces with “war paint” when attending athletic games, we are sick at heart.

When fashionistas adorn their models with faux head-dresses to resemble plains Indians, we despair. 

And when folks dress like Native Americans at Halloween, we think: not again.

The irony with appropriating or re-packaging someone else’s religion or culture is that–as American Indians–we often hear the following explanation from those who defend the practice:

We are honoring you. 

Maybe wearing a plains head-dress or tattooing the Buddha feels like you offer an honor.

But true honor arises from offering your respectful understanding and behavior.

24 March 2017

Photo of a British tourist deported from Sri Lanka for sporting a Buddha tattoo (Photo credit AFP-Getty) and an ad for a Halloween costume on the web









About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, Bangkok, family values, immigration, Indian, native press, Native Science, nativescience, Vacation, writing, zen and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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